Rock & Roll Rumble. For some of Boston's up and coming bands, this annual contest may be a skyrocket to stardom

AS the first note of a bass guitar reverberates through the smoky room, the waiting crowd presses forward to encircle the stage. Rhythmic drumming and the low rumble of a synthesizer flow at near-deafening levels to the farthest corners of the cavelike club. The crowd begins to sway. Musicians, distinguishable by their creative (dyed, shaved, sprayed, and jelled), gravity-defying hairstyles and androgenous clothing, stand back to take notes on style and technique. The more traditional set, clad in blue jeans and T-shirts, spill onto the sardine-tin-size dance floor. For a moment, social differences are cast aside in shared appreciation of the music.

For nine nights recently, this scene was repeated as 24 up and coming bands tested their talents in three of Boston's most popular nightspots. From the knee-slapping rockabilly of Scruffy the Cat to the intellectual lyrics and electric wail of Life on Earth, this event, known as the Rock 'n Roll Rumble, provided Boston rock fans with a smorgasbord of new music.

Rumble co-organizer and WBCN programmer Danny McCloskey explains that Boston has a rare audience for new music that other cities just don't have. The hundreds of colleges and universities in the area provide a large student population in Boston with an unmatched appetite for new music. Sellout crowds at the Rumble proved his point.

Now in its seventh year, the Rumble was actually created as much for the bands as for the audience. WBCN, a Boston-based radio station, designed the Rumble to help new bands sing, dance, and play their way into the spotlight. Since its lowly beginnings at one of the city's seedier clubs, the Rumble has grown in size and stature to become easily the biggest annual event for the area's rock musicians.

Long recognized as a breeding ground for new music, Boston is home to nearly 1,500 bands. Several of these groups have managed to make the transition from day jobs and small-time clubs to solid-gold records and nationwide concert tours. The list includes Aerosmith, a favorite from the '70s; the Cars, who displayed its ``oh-so-cool'' style in last month's Live Aid concert; and 'til tuesday, who recently opened for the Hall and Oates concert tour and are, without a doubt, the darlings of Boston rock.

Still, the world is full of new and unknown rock bands. How does a young group break into the popular music scene and get listed on the charts? Aside from talent, good management, timing, and hard work, an extra push is often needed. By introducing bands to the who's who of the music world, the Rumble has found a way to oil the wheels of success and set them in motion.

Although one band emerges victorious from the competition, all the bands benefit from their 30 minutes in the spotlight. Fans are wooed, contacts are made, radioplay is promised, and recording contracts are negotiated. This year's bands were rated by a panel of 45 judges, which included members of the media and recording company representatives. Prizes for the top-point winners, ranging from cash to studio recording time to haircuts for the band members, were donated by local businesses.

Sometimes the rewards are direct. Winning the Rumble, says Mr. McCloskey, ``catapulted 'til tuesday [1983 Rumble winner] to national attention.'' Lenny Collins, the local contact for Epic Records and a judge on the first night of competition, immediately spotted 'til tuesday's unique pop/funk sound. Two years later, the band's first album, signed on the Epic label, is climbing the charts.

This year's winner, Down Avenue, was the type of band the Rumble was designed for, says McCloskey. ``We wanted to take a band that was really good and give [its members] a focus so that everyone else could see how good they are.''

A rock band for all seasons, Down Avenue has a polished pop sound that mixes a funky dance beat with smooth, warm vocals. The synthesized keyboard plays the melody and also doubles the bass line for extra punch or adds the Caribbean-like tinkle of brass drums. The highs and lows in the music are strongly accentuated with further contours added to the sound by the electric guitar. Influences include jazz, heavy metal, and soul. Energetic and compellingly danceable, Down Avenue's music is intended to be a ccessible and upbeat.

``We want people to dance, to get involved, and to feel it,'' says David Doms, Down Avenue's synthesized keyboard player. ``People should be uplifted when they leave, rather than shellshocked.''

Musical content ranges from the lovelorn lyrics of ``These Four Walls'' (``She seemed to be feeling so fine, but I knew the outcome long before her flight'') to the lighthearted tone of ``Tropics'' (``Smile walking through the tropic green, all the fruit about to ripen. Palm trees rustle in the gentle breeze, roof above lets shafts of light in.'').

The short hair and trendy-to-tropical attire of the band players reflect the fun-loving spirit of their music. It's obvious that the band enjoys playing, and fans can't help but join in. From the moment Bermuda shorts-attired Charles Pettigrew begins to dance, the crowd starts to rock with him, clapping and singing along.

Although not assuring it a spot on the charts, winning the Rumble has had immediate rewards for Down Avenue. Overnight its earnings have nearly tripled. In several months the members hope to quit their day jobs to focus on playing music.

Their music is also guaranteed more and better play on the radio. The next big step for the band, the release of its first EP (extended play album), will take place in early September. Band members agree that the Rumble played a major part in sealing this contract. And they used the prize of recording time to tape the five songs included on the record. This first ``breakout'' album will be used as a hometown test product. If the record is a success, the band can expect a national recording contrac t and a tour as a warm-up for an established act.

And just what is it about Down Avenue that won this year's Rumble? Albert O., WBCN disc jockey, calls it``mainstream in some ways but also unusual; they appeal to both traditional rock-and-rollers and new-music fans.''

Another winning factor is lead-singer Charles Pettigrew's rich, fluid vocals and charismatic style, which top off the band's great dance beat and straight-to-the-heart lyrics. Pettigrew's audience appeal has helped the band build a strong tie with its fans that keeps them coming back. ``We knew we were getting somewhere,'' claims Fred Hsia, lead guitarist, ``when we would warm up for another band, and more fans would come to see us.''

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